Ride Ready? Here’s How to Check Your Bike

Don’t worry if you’ve left your bike outside, or sitting in the backyard, or resting under a pile of (clean?) laundry for the winter. You’re not alone.

What’s important now that warm weather has arrived is that you get ready to ride. So let’s get to it!

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Today’s post is written by Liz Jose, a professional bicycle mechanic and, as founder of WE Bike NYC, an advocate for women’s cycling.

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How do you know how your bike is doing? When will some chain lube be enough to get back on the road? When will you need the help of a shop mechanic? The simplest way to think about basic bike repair is ABC Quick Check. It’s an easy-to-remember checklist to help you evaluate the ride-readiness of your bike. I’ll walk you through it below. If fixes are needed, you can decide what to tackle yourself and what needs the attention of a mechanic.

A is for Air

Pump up those tires!

Check your tire by squeezing the side with your first finger and thumb. If it’s a road bike with skinny tires you should not have any give at all. If it’s a mountain bike with fat, knobby tires, it should just barely give. You shouldn’t be able to squish it a lot. For commuter and utility bikes, if your tire is wider than two fingers, follow the mountain bike guidelines. If it is narrower than two fingers, follow the road bike guidelines.

If your tires need air, grab a bicycle pump with a pressure gauge.  How do you know how much air to put in? Every tire has a recommended inflation pressure. This can be found imprinted on the side of the tire along with the letters P.S.I., which stands for pounds per square inch.

There are usually a “max.” and a “min.” listed. For example, on a skinny road bike tire, you might see a min. of 100 PSI and a max. of 145 PSI. Generally if it is slippery, rainy, snowy or otherwise crappy out, you want to keep your tires inflated on the min. end. If it’s a beautiful, sunny day, and you want to go fast, pump it up to max. Never go below the min. as this may cause a flat.

People often tell me that they are scared of popping their tires by pumping in too much air. Tires burst only when there is some other issue. Popping happens when part of the tube escapes the tire and gets pinched by the rim, or when there is a cut in the tire and the tube bubbles out as you pump. You, in your house, with your bike pump will not pop your tire. That said, inspect the tire before you pump it up; give it a little all-around massage to check for foreign objects or nicks or cuts.

One more thing: If you use a gas station pump to inflate your tires, do not use the pressure gauge. It won’t be accurate for your small tires and might result in a flat or pop. Unlike using your floor pump, the extreme air pressure in the gas station pump makes it possible to pop your tire by over-inflating.

B is for Brakes

Brakes are obviously the most important safety feature on your bike. (I’m not counting a helmet because that’s on your head.)

To check your brakes, squeeze both brake levers while the bike is upright and try to roll it forward. If it moves at all, watch the tires. Are the wheels spinning? Or is it just sliding across your floor? If it’s sliding, your brakes work. Congrats! If the wheels are spinning, it’s time to take it to a shop. A brake adjustment costs about $10 for the labor and potentially another $15 for parts, if you need new pads, and can literally save your life.

Squeeze one brake at a time and get your face down there at wheel level. Make sure both pads hit at the same time, and that they are contacting the wheel rim only. If the entire pad is not contacting the flat surface of the rim or the pads are worn at strange angles, it’s time to take your bike to the shop.

Note that brake pads are made of rubber, like pencil erasers. Just as pencil erasers become “petrified” and rip your paper and make smudges, brake pads can harden (especially over a long winter) and that means they won’t grip the rim very well. Even if the pads look brand new, if they aren’t stopping your wheel, they need to be replaced.

C is for Chain

As you pedal, the chain is what gets the wheels turning to propel your bike. This means, if the chain is no good, you won’t get anywhere.

Look at its condition. Does the chain appear dirty or rusty? Is it sagging when your bike is sitting in the living room? Have you ever changed it?

A chain usually wears out about every 2 years or less, depending on how much you ride. A good way to preserve it is to keep it well lubed. There are many brands of bike chain lube. Use something like T-9 or Finish Line.

What is known as wet lubricant is appropriate for NYC. Dry lubricant isn’t so much. Dry lube dries on the chain and leaves a thin film. It creates a protective shield which is great, but it flakes off easily. It’s good for when there is a lot of dust in the environment because it seals it out. Wet lube works its way into all the little parts of your chain and decreases friction to help everything move smoothly. It is more consistent (doesn’t flake off) and better for wet conditions.

WD-40 is not bike lube. Do not use it. WD-40 is a solvent. This means it cleans out some dirt and grime, but it also eats up any lubricating oil on the chain. It will make your chain collect more dirt.

To apply lube, put a tiny drop on the roller of every chain link and then pedal the bike through all the gear combinations. Wipe off the excess with a clean rag. If the chain looks rusty, but all the links still move, you can revive it with some lube. If it is rusty and frozen in place (even just one link) it’s time to get a new chain at your bike shop.

Also be aware that chains and rear gear clusters (freewheels or cassettes) wear together. If your chain is very worn, it is likely you need to replace both the chain and the rear gear cluster to avoid the chain skipping.

Quick

The “quick” stands for your quick releases. These are the levers on your wheels. Make sure these are in the “closed” position, and that they point backward, so they don’t get caught on anything.  If the lever were a door, it would be a closed door, not an open one. Many skewers also have “open” and “closed” written on the lever. If your bike doesn’t have quick-release skewers, grab a 15 mm wrench and make sure that the bolts holding the wheel on are tight.

On any bike, be sure that the wheel is sitting all the way into the drop-outs, which are like little hands that hold the skewer or axle. You shouldn’t be able to see any of the hole where the axle fits. If you notice something that looks off, just loosen the wheel and re-install it with the bike sitting on the ground. Gravity will help center the wheel all the way into the drop-outs.

Check!

This is your “something is weird-o-meter” check. Pick the bike up 1 inch off the ground and drop it. Were there any jangly noises or strange thumps? You know your bike best. You know what sounds normal and what is weird. Do the same thing riding your bike down the street for a block. Any strange sounds?

If you hear something, and can’t make the sound go away with some chain lube or by pumping up the tires, it’s time to take your bike to a shop. As a shop mechanic for many years, I can tell you it is completely okay to go into a shop and say, “My bike making a weird noise.” If the mechanics make you feel silly or don’t take you seriously, go to a different shop where you feel welcome and respected!

Remember, the ABC Quick Check isn’t just for your first spring ride. Use it often to assure that you are ready to ride safely and comfortably all season.

Photo: Drilled-out chain rings add an elegant touch to this vintage Hill Cycles road bike. Source

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